Spowart & Cooper, Thoughts on Noosa 06, 2006

These two interconnected articles by Doug Spowart and Victoria Cooper come from a limited edition newsletter/promotional publication called ART OF BOOKS ~ BOOKS OF ART. A number of institutions hold this publication, which has 17 issues (to date) and an ISSN of 1832-2638. These articles are from Number 11, 2006. 

Encountering an artists’ book at an exhibition – or – Selective browsing artists’ books: Doug Spowart

Noosa Books 06 [at the Noosa Regional Gallery, Qld] once again provided dilettantes of artists’ books with a privileged opportunity to view an expansive selection of contemporary practice. Eighty-one books from around Australia and around the world were on display with a large number available for direct handling. Concurrent with this juried exhibition [titled Books10+] is a show by the dynamic duo Adele Outteridge and Wim de Vos presenting a retrospective of their extensive and vital practice. At this time I will comment on the works in the Books10+ show.

As a third time visitor to this annual event I was aware of what I was to encounter. My interest in books is more than a casual one – I have a range of behaviours and expectations relating to viewing books at an exhibition. I generally want to connect with the message – the narrative the story. I want to feel the item – explore the construction, the production and the finish of the product.



For me Books10+ is kind of like being a kid visiting the lolly shop and I, like most children, would probably want to gorge myself on the goodies available until reaching the point of gluttonous bliss. However this time I had a viewing strategy – I had no intension to analyse each book, to turn each page from cover to cover, to check technique for clues on how the maker made the book, or to carry out an assessment like a schoolteacher or passionate judge. This time I was going to explore the art of selective browsing. I found it to be an interesting experience – but what does it mean for my experience of the work in the show, and how does it inform my own artists’ book practice? Here are my impressions of the browse and commentary on a selection of books I was drawn to encounter.



There are so many expectations that we have for the book – we expect that it will demand that we will engage with it. But what happens when you are in a library surrounded by hundreds of books? Something has to stand out and attract attention. In browsing I found the first victim of the strategy to be the often-touted dictum of  ‘You can’t judge a book by its cover’. Because the cover is the first thing we encounter its outer visual exterior needs to be seductive, alluring and ready to entice the eye-hand coordination response to bring about the pickup. What may work may be a snazzy picture or graphic, a luxurious paper, a perfect coptic-stitched spine, slipcase or box of fine craftsmanship.



Scanning the book-covered tables I was drawn to the sight of the tactile form of crinkled handmade paper with a pressed-in title, What you will need to make a book by Liz Jenied. My gloved hands spontaneously reach out and pick up and gently turn the pages. The form of bone folder, brushes and a cutting knife become visible as embossed shapes in the paper – I am rewarded. In a wall of miniature ‘bookettes’ I encounter a black book of white printed roses – Against nature by Sarah Bodman and read the didactic panel’s cryptic clue.


There are a number of examples of hybrid book-forms represented in the exhibition. These are from the ‘book as sculpture’ faction who really have subverted the need for a cover, as their works are immediately and completely visible. In this show several sculptural books attract the browse – these are works in which the narrative is not so much found ‘in’ the book but rather it is something what the viewer ‘gets’ from looking at the work.



Richie Ares Dona’s Rhythm Knowledge has its strength in the grand scale of the work, its meticulously folded construction and Chinese lantern symmetry.



Luella Price’s Flow was most obvious due to its curious yellow gelatine colouring and its melting book form. Another book-like sculptural form is H KIMONO by Judy Barrass and consists 136 small origami jackets folded from manga comics sandwiched between Perspex in a hinged large-scale concertina screen form.


Strangely my browsing seemed to develop a bias for the sculptural book – no need to pickup or turn the page – the only decision is the viewing position in proximity to the work. I move on, aesthetically and conceptually, there are other things to see. A book is a thing of beauty, and in an attempt explore the range of practice within the exhibition I come across an unassuming soft green cloth covered book by Sandi Rigby entitled Paris Gardens.



One thing about being in the presence of a great number of artists’ books is that you can’t help but notice the predominance of overtly hand-made product in the genre. I was drawn to this book by its presentation. It is an exquisitely designed book of fine etchings and patternings – a visual diary of experience in which the sensibility of the artist and their ability to distil visual experience to image and sequence that informs and entertains. For my browsing eye this book provided an experience that firmly placed me in the space of the artist.

I wander on – there is so much more to see . . .  tactile things, trickily resolved sculptural forms, books driven by concept and/or technique, the highly didactic, the monumentally deluxe, easy-lookers, ones to come back to, rustic art trouvé collages and books with humour and a twist of the unexpected. Ultimately, browsing or not, my head always spins after a few hours of engagement with artists’ books. The required intensity of gaze and attentiveness to respond to nuances of intellectual or quasi-intellectual discourse takes its toll.

When I withdraw from the fray a gradual process of recollection emerges. Things seen, sensed and experienced, rise to consciousness in the hours, days and months beyond the viewing. Maybe it is here, where we truly come to know what are the best books and the most successful communiqués. Books where the message has resonance and meaning far beyond the maker and our first viewing. Visiting an exhibition of artists’ books is indeed something more than a browse – it is a visit to the artist’s engine room where we discover a place of innovation, creativity and many, many stories.

DS, 3 November 2006


TWO BOOKS: Comment by Victoria Cooper

At Books06, held at the Noosa Regional Gallery, two visual stories stood out amongst a quality and diverse collection of artists’ books, Diana Maloney’s 10+Beyond, and Lyn Ashby’s Sisyphus Goes Home.

The viewing and the reading of a visual narrative in book form can be shown to be two different experiences. Once attracted by a clever, well-crafted construction or a catchy cover design, the viewer surveys the book as both attributes allude to the narrative contained within. Flicking through the pages in no particular order engages a viewer with the visual nature of the book. This may be all that the viewer needs to experience the book and they move on. But to ‘read’ the book, the connection with a narrative of any sensory nature should transform the viewer into reader.



Maloney’s 10+Beyond, playfully explores through text and image the conflict of women’s roles, the domestic routine and the child within. The story is at first whimsical yet on further reading it becomes poignant and subtly political. It is reminiscent of the cut out dolls and doll accessories that were the simple playthings for the early imagination. Maloney draws upon this activity by dissecting the sentimental imagery from old dressmaking pattern packages, which is then collaged onto hand painted landscapes. The context of these cutouts now serves to accentuate the domestic environment of the narrative and take the reader on a journey through time, as the subject appears to grow older.

The landscape within this book performs as a nostalgic backdrop, reminiscent of a seaside visit. But all is not warm and fuzzy as the text evokes the disappointment of a child unable to partake in play and hints at the consequence of domestic servitude and good taste, responsibilities still inherent in many women today.

The book has a precious handmade and intimate feel, its message may be interpreted in ways beyond what I read, but for me the most important thing is that it is one that I could go back to and read again.


Lyn Ashby’s book, Sisyphus Goes Home, looks like a book produced commercially for small volume print runs, it has a clean professional finish. The only words are in the title, Sisyphus Goes Home. This infers an endless and recurring mission, an eternal curse that never ends. The story begins its cyclic sequence as a simple form in black and white climbs a hill only to find that there is another hill to climb in the journey ahead. The story continues and changes begin to fade in and out. The black and white figure and the landscape becomes a changing mix of colours and patterns, perhaps symbolic of the variety of experiences encountered through the tedium of life. Ashby questions in his statement:

If Sisyphus is a symbol of the strange hopelessness of our
situation (none of us will get out of this alive) then
the question is: how do we find happiness (and Home) in
this fatally flawed existence? 

This question presents a sad, lonely and somewhat powerless state of humanity, but he perhaps provides an answer in the changing landscape his hapless form inhabits. The inflow and out flow of patterns and colours through the story are the language that narrates meaning, the highs and lows, the ordinary and complex and wonderment of what is contained on the next page. It shows that there is joy and variety to be found within the confinement of the underlying cheerlessness of the everyday grind.

Both books allow us to look at ourselves, not to be judgemental or critical but through whimsy and humour, they enable a self-critique of life and meaning. The artists skilfully use imagery and symbolism as a vocabulary to impart a philosophical stance. When viewing we see patterns, colours or interesting uses of collage but in the reading we engage with a different perspective on life which we can be rewarded in many ways by the enhancement our own perception.

VC,  10 November 2006


About the authors

Dr Doug Spowart and Dr Victoria Cooper work collaboratively as Photographers of the Great Divide. They both have doctorates from James Cook University, Doug’s on Photobooks and Victoria’s on Place and Water. They have a website called Cooper and Spowart, and a working blog called wotwedid. They have had many adventures with photography and artists’ books.